Putting Student Evaluations into Perspective

Matej Kastelic

Submitting to a professional performance evaluation is humbling. Our livelihoods are the cornerstone of our security and our sense of ourselves. Our feelings about the work we do run deep.

A historically favored tool, instructor evaluations submitted by students, can be enlightening and helpful to educators. These devices only offer one vantage point, though, and it’s problematic if they are used as a singular measure of educators’ performance.

Certainly, student, client, or customer feedback is worth considering when evaluating a professional’s work. It offers insights from a key audience. But it’s important to keep that in perspective — the feedback is valuable for refining the final product rather than dictating a professional’s advancement worthiness. While this audience is important to hear and to recognize, these individuals are not credentialed to evaluate performance.

But how can educators use performance feedback? What clues and cues does it offer them for refining their work? If you’re an instructor, how do you put this feedback into perspective and glean value without getting weighed down by the venting that is inclined to happen via this tool?

Consider these strategies for weathering student evaluations and using the insights they provide.

Evaluating Instruction
In 2014, the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Committee on Teaching, Research, and Publication surveyed educators about how their professional efforts are measured. In their article, How Do We Evaluate Teaching?Craig Vasey and Linda Carrol describe the conclusions that the AAUP reached after they collected their survey results: “[C]hairs, deans, provosts, and institutions as a whole should not allow numerical rankings from student evaluations to serve as the only or the primary indicator of teaching quality… The purpose of evaluation should be to help faculty members improve as teachers and to provide quality control…”

Student evaluations are important, but they are not a consistently reliable measure for evaluating educator performance as it relates to advancement opportunities. They are good for students, and they can help professors. While evaluations might be part of the performance picture, professionals trained to evaluate educators, rather than students, should make recommendations about advancement opportunities.

Reading the Data
Interestingly, the AAUP’s study found that students were less inclined to complete evaluations when they were asked to do so online, outside of class, rather than on paper, during class meetings. Vasey and Carroll explain: “[T]he return rate has dropped from 80 percent or higher on paper to 20 to 40 percent online. With such a rate of return, claims of ‘validity’ are rendered dubious. Faculty members reported that comments from the students are on the extremes: those who are very happy with their experience or their grade, and those who are very unhappy.”

This is important to keep in mind as you review the feedback that students submit. While it’s a good strategy to learn what you can from the feedback, don’t read it with your heart on your sleeve. Recognize it as one conduit of feedback that you can use to refine the work you do.

Celebrate the positive feedback that you get, but don’t let the negative erode your confidence.

Savvy Self-Management
Nancy Garver, a professor in the marketing department at DePaul University, explains that she regards student evaluations as a professional opportunity for her students to engage in discourse they will need to advance their own professional lives. Garver explains, for example, that performance reviews teach students “how to ‘manage up’ — which is not a skill taught in the classroom. Yet, it can make or break your career.”

Cultivating this self-management mindset is helpful for students and for the professionals training them. Recognize that there may be some feedback that you get that is simply students venting. Other input can help you refine your work. But don’t rely on student feedback alone to refine your efforts. Your job is difficult and demanding. It requires support and continued development.

To that end, seek out the assistance of a mentor. Ask your mentor to observe you teaching on various occasions throughout the term. Request written feedback. Get your mentor’s input on what it takes to earn promotional opportunities at your institution.

Also, use teaching resources on campus. Join committees. Meet with your academic and HR partners. Share your feedback and request advice. Having a diversity of resources ensures that you’re growing and developing professionally. It also helps you to solidify the support team that you need to do a taxing job. This way, unfairly negative or unhelpful comments from evaluations are less likely to make you feel attacked or derailed. You can discuss them with someone who knows your work, your institution, and your student population.

You Don’t Have to Prove Yourself Every Day
Teaching at the higher ed level is competitive, which can make it difficult to maintain a healthy sense of yourself. But you can only thrive in that space if you find a healthy way to weather the competition and to build a good life there. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to please or impress everyone.

But you’ll find a better fit if you can be flexible, resilient, and open. To that end, be a good listener. Be humble and open to improving yourself as an academic and an educator. You don’t have to prove yourself every day, but you get opportunities to grow. Take them.

Put it in perspective
If evaluations are a tool that informs your professional growth, but they don’t determine your advancement potential, then it’s much easier to hear the feedback your students offer and to use it strategically.

Garver explains how she absorbs feedback while maintaining her perspective: “If I get more than one comment around the same topic, it might be time to adjust or re-think how to bring something to life in the classroom. It’s hard not to take things personally — we’re human. That said, this is these students’ debut into the art of feedback. They are practicing on you as the professor — and one day they will use this same type of format on colleagues and bosses. They are still learning, so be open to letting them use their voice and get comfortable with the exercise. Feedback means they care. It’s the ones I don’t get feedback from that concern me.”

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